We just want, want, want.
— Will Allen
“Chickens,” says Joel Salatin, are our “fellow workers, alongside of us. We allow them to fully express their chickenness.” Salatin knows from chickenness — as well as cowness, pigness, and tomoatoness, all part of an essential balance that industrial farming disrupts daily.
Salatin’s own Polyface Farm in Swoope, Virginia models another approach in the documentary Fresh, not to mention Michael Pollan’s 2006 book The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Speaking passionately in Ana Sofia Joanes’ film — which screens 6 June at Maysles Cinema, followed by a discussion — both Salatin and Pollan make a case that seems obvious: fresh food is better for you. Still, they face an uphill battle, as American food production has for so long pursued quantity over quality. Repeated shots of hundreds of cows crowded into feeding warehouses illustrate Salatin’s concern that “feeding dead cows to cows” makes the live ones grow faster, but also undermines their existence as herbivores, makes them and the rest of us sick (he cites mad cow disease as but one dire consequence).
The film offers as well as a pair of chicken farmers, Mr. and Mrs. Fox. Unable to fight off the industrials, they’ve accepted terms for their farm in Rison, Arkansas, producing chickens for Herbine Poultry. And they look downright guilty about it, as they speak from their sofa, heavily shadowed with white poodles in their laps. “They’re comfortable and they eat,” they say of their products, not because of steroids, but just because they can. A series of awful images — chicks dumped by the basket-load onto wide warehouse floors, cheep-cheep-cheeping as they hit the hard dirt — are awful to look at. Worse, the sequence is framed by the cringe-making interview with the Foxes, their faces grim and their answers curt. They feed their chickens mixes designed by nutritionists, they say. When the off-screen questioner asks, “Do you know what’s in the mix?” they have only a vague answer: “Some antibiotics, just for the health of the chicks.”
The “health of the chicks” is only at risk, says Salatin, because they’re warehoused and packaged, removed from any sort of natural interactions, where birds and livestock and plants all interact in a food chain. “Monocultures,” notes Pollan, “are very dangerous things.” As ailments and pests afflict the product, you “need to use antibiotics to keep them alive.” The antibiotics, in turn, weed out the weaker strains of bacteria and help to strengthen others. And so the cycle begins.
As Salatin explains the problems in production, Pollan cites the unhealthy products, processed foods that may be inexpensive and plentiful, but also have “all the nutrients… expunged, basically.” As he notes that “Cheap food is an illusion,” you see a montage of the usual suspects — Cocoa Puffs, Sunbeam white bread, Kool-Aid Bursts (who even knew these existed?), and of course, Taco Bell. Such chemical concoctions, Pollan reminds you, only appear “cheap.” They all have inevitable costs down the road — in human health, in the environment, and in the culture.
It’s true, says Pollan, that “organic food” is expensive and processed food seems convenient , but the entire system of production and consumption is now built backwards and is, he says, plainly “unsustainable.” Government subsidies support manufacturers of high fructose corn syrup, but not “healthy, fresh produce.” And entire populations are relegated to living in “food deserts,” where they’re inundated with processed foods but “can’t find an apple.” Within this closed circle, where only a “small number of companies are controlling the industrial food chain from seed to plate,” the class divide can only expand: poor people succumb and rich people benefit.
The answer, according to Fresh, is an organized, step by step resistance, as politicized and as organized as any other sort of social movement. At the forefront are organic farmers like Salatin and activists and teachers like Will Allen, an urban farmer in Milwaukee whose Growing Power shows students how to grow their own food even in the smallest of spaces. “My father was a sharecropper,” Allen explains, who puts together that background with his early career training in “sales technology” with Procter & Gamble, in order to inspire and train up informed producer-consumers.
Drawing from the heartening stories of Salatin and Allen, Fresh encourages viewers to participate as well. If the film is making a common sense case with regard to nutrition, it’s also making a less obvious case concerning politics. Industrial farming is about profits, but it’s also about choices, Fresh argues. And citizens can feel responsible.